Nature Studies: Is it possible to put a price on nature? And if we can, should we?

Does assigning monetary value to ecosystem services a method of preserving them? Or does it make them easier to sell off?

Last Friday, I attended a debate which dramatised in a riveting way one of the most urgent questions for anyone who cares about the natural world and its increasing degradation: should we put a price on nature? The debate was between two of our best-known green campaigners, Tony Juniper and George Monbiot, who agree on probably nine out of 10 environmental issues: but on the tenth one, turning nature into a matter of economics, they are fiercely opposed. 

It’s a question which has never been more relevant, because all over the globe, nature is being trashed – the mammoth forest fires in Indonesia I wrote about last week are just the most egregious recent example, and it’s easy to end up with the despairing sense that the destruction of the natural world is an unavoidable part of the price we pay for human development. 

But a growing body of opinion sees the answer, and the possibility of halting that destruction, in the formal recognition of the essential services nature provides for us. Pollination of our crops by bees and other insects is the most obvious example, but there are many such “ecosystem services” from the supply of fresh water, and indeed, oxygen, by rainforests, to the provision of flood defence by mangrove swamps. 

They are not only increasingly understood, but their value is increasingly being computed in direct financial terms: the first attempt at a global value for insect pollination, for example, nearly 20 years ago, came up with a figure of $116bn (£76bn) annually. And if we recognise the true value to us of this “natural capital”, the theory goes, we will be much more reluctant to destroy it. Tony Juniper, who was a brilliant leader of Friends of the Earth, has been one of the principal advocates in Britain of the ecosystems services approach (his book What Has Nature Ever Done For Us? was the first popularisation of the idea) and last week he forcefully made the case for it at the New Networks for Nature Conference in Stamford, Lincolnshire. 

But opposing him, in a debate in a theatre that was packed to overflowing, was the equally forceful writer and campaigner George Monbiot, best known recently for his gripping book Feral, a manifesto for “rewilding” our countryside with animals we have lost, from lynxes to beavers. 

And Monbiot takes the view, that once you put a price on nature, it becomes a resource; it is “radically reframed as something that can be traded and used”.  It has to belong to someone; it can be traded in the marketplace on behalf of someone; it can be bought and sold, by big corporations.  

He said: “You’re exchanging love for nature, and wonderment and delight, and replacing them with a different set of values that can be measured in pounds and dollars.” Juniper countered that we have to replace the “problematic narrative”,  that nature is unaffordable in a modern economy; we have to insist that nature is essential for our economic development and our economic future, and use the economic argument on nature’s behalf – “we need to reframe the conservation argument in ways which are positive”. The argument was as fiery as an argument can be, though it was never unfriendly; and the passion, and opposing convictions, and also the supreme articulacy and fluency of these two campaigners made it the most enthralling environmental debate I have ever witnessed. It was a privilege to be present, and that was the overwhelming feeling of the hundreds of people in the audience. 

But if you ask me who won, and you ask me: should we put a price on nature? I can’t tell you. There was no vote taken at the end; and my own feeling, which is instinctively sympathetic to No, to the Monbiot side of the argument, was constantly swayed by the force of Juniper’s logic. I should say in passing that this terrific dispute was only one of many outstanding events at the three-day New Networks for Nature conference, which, now in its seventh year, is the leading coming-together of the arts in defence of the natural world. I didn’t write about it beforehand, as it was sold out weeks in advance, and many people were disappointed looking for late tickets. Next year, it will be held at the new Cambridge conservation centre; watch out for announcements at the New Networks for Nature website – and book early.

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